Sunday, May 17, 2009

Help Me Spread Goodness

Genre: Drama
Premise: A banker who gets swindled in a Nigerian internet scam travels to Nigeria to get his money back.
About: From Variety - "Ben Stiller will direct/produce with Red Hour partner Stuart Kornfeld and Jeremy Kramer. While the project is meant to be entertaining, it sheds light on current issues in Nigeria and other African countries, fitting the Participant Media mandate to make films that compel social change." This is way more drama than comedy and quite an interesting choice for Stiller. Then again, his directing tastes tend to be different than his acting tastes (Tropic Thunder excluded). It also received 6 votes on the 2008 Black List (people can dog that list all they want but it seems like everything on it is made into a movie).
Writer: Mark Friedman

The hardest thing to understand about Help Me Spread Goodness is why an intelligent middle-aged middle-class man with a good education and a job in *banking* would be so stupid as to fall for one of the most obvious scams in the history of the internet. Before they even extend one leg of tripod to shoot this picture, they're going to have to fix that problem.

We're introduced to PATRICK, the aforementioned banker, who's itching for a promotion so he can send his son to astronaut camp. When the promotion doesn't happen, Patrick finds himself confiding in a man who's sent him one of those infamous "I am dying and need to give you my 130 million dollar estate" Nigerian e-mails. This part of the script is quite funny, as we get cutaways to the Nigerian's alleged story along with voice over. He's lying in bed. Dying. Signing his last will and testament. Then we have Patrick casually writing back, "I didn't get the promotion. Can you believe that??"

But when it becomes clear that Patrick actually believes the story and is going to send money, the script takes a huge step backwards. This scam is an ongoing joke in almost every circle of America. You're saying Patrick is the one guy who's never heard of it? Okay, well, whatever. Let's go with it for now.

Surprise surprise, when Patrick checks his bank account a couple of weeks later, there's a large sum of money missing and it seems that - gasp - his Nigerian buddies aren't e-mailing him back. Not only can Patrick not send his son to astronaut camp, but he just lost 25 grand of his college fund. I don't know if Patrick was more pissed that the Nigerians ripped him off or that he was a complete moron, but he takes it upon himself to right this wrong and travels to Nigeria to get that money back.

So Patrick jets to Lagos, Nigeria, a city with over 8 million people, and starts snooping around as if it's the Old West and you can pop into the local watering hole and ask, "Hey, you know of any suspicious people in these parts?" Just an observation here, but if you're a banker and can't even make sound money decisions, what makes you think you can be a detective in a strange country where you don't even speak the language?

But here's the thing. If you can get over all that (and it's not easy), you just might find yourself enjoying a sweet story about a man who learns a little bit more about the world.

What Patrick begins to see is that the Nigerian men involved in these scams - however wrong they may be - are doing it to survive. This isn't the First World where as long as you have an education and work hard, you can get a job. There aren't any jobs there, there's no education, and scamming whoever you can to make it through the day is better than the alternative: to starve. So when Patrick says "You stole from me," they basically say, "Yeah, but you were dumb enough to fall for it" (and because Patrick is so stupid, I kinda agree with them).

But getting back to the story, Patrick actually does run into one of the scammers, OTUMBO, who promises to take him to the man who orchestrated the scheme. This leads to a series of mis-adventures that leave Patrick worse off than if he'd never come to Nigeria in the first place. For some reason though, Patrick continues to trust him.

After Patrick is conned for the third time and has finally discovered that small part of his brain that still functions, he calls it quits on Otumbo, telling him to get out of his life. Except that the very next day, when he comes out of his hotel, Otumbo is there, waiting for him on another journey that he promises will lead Patrick to the man who stole his money. But Patrick's not having it. "Wait here, I'll be back in a minute," he tells Otumbo, with no intention of ever returning. So Otumbo sits down and waits.

And waits...

And waits...

When Patrick gets back to the hotel, out of eyesight, he sees that Otumbo is *still* there. He sneaks up to his room and comes back down a couple hours later. He's shocked to see that Otombo is *still* waiting for him. He leaves a third time, comes back hours after that. It's been seven hours in total. Mark Friedman writes:

Half-eaten room service lunch on the desk. Patrick goes to the window, knowing what he’ll find...

Then he frowns. Otumbo is gone. He’s puzzled-- And then he spots him. He’s WALKING IN TRAFFIC in front of the hotel, selling... TOILET PLUNGERS.

He’s selling toilet plungers.

And Patrick stands there, and he watches. Traffic is heavy now but it still speeds up occasionally and is dangerous, Otumbo weaves between cars, face shiny with sweat.

Patrick is transfixed. Something about this moves him. This young guy who found some plungers and is trying to sell them, doing whatever he can... and still taking an occasional glance back at the hotel, waiting for Patrick to emerge.
It's this kind of heartbreaking moment where you realize that Patrick isn't just a scam for Otumbo. He's survival. He's a way to last a few more days out in the jungle. It was a touching moment that really drove home, I believe, the reason why Friedman wrote this.

So while this script is not without faults, it does have enough high points for me to recommend. Read it yourself and tell me what you think.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest

[x] worth the read

[ ] impressive

[ ] genius

What I learned: I think I've said this before but sometimes we're so blinded by wanting to tell our story, that we forget to ask if our characters are acting rationally. I guarantee you there's no way this will be filmed before this problem is fixed because nobody will believe that Patrick is that dumb. There's another script out there called "Big Hole" that's similar to this except in that script, the protagonist is much older - is not nearly as computer savvy - so the fact that he would get swindled by an internet scam is a lot more believable. Just make sure your characters are making believable choices.